Executive Perspective

Notions of Space and Time From Home Learners

by PAUL D. HOUSTON

Have you ever thought about the fact that "home schooling" is an oxymoron? Home is a place. School is a place. You can't be in two places at the same time. Yet I think that home schoolers are not the only ones trying to be in two places at the same time. So are "school schoolers."

We want to be focused on the cognitive and the affective--the head and the heart. That's a tough straddle. As we work toward reconciling that paradox, perhaps we can learn some things from home schoolers. I’m not sure what education in the future will be like, but I know the tremendous pressures of current historical trends will reshape us. If we are not to be swept up in these floods of change, we’ll need to create a new way of working. I think that the home school movement may hold one of the keys to this.

For most of the history of schooling, the process has been shaped by the control of time. Schools operate on a schedule. Teachers create lesson plans that determine when and how things will happen. Education has been a teacher-centered process. As we leap headfirst into the era of standards and accountability, this will be even truer. Coverage becomes the crucial variable for getting kids ready for testing. You can’t answer what hasn’t been taught.

An Experiment of Space
There was a brief period of time when we experimented with a different model. Back in the late 1960s and early '70s, many schools tried to convert to the open-classroom model. The concept behind that approach was that time was not the variable to be controlled. Space was the variable. Teachers were supposed to create spaces in the room for activities that had been planned for students. Students would be more in control of the time, but what they worked on was shaped by the way the teacher created the space.

Sadly, as with many decent ideas, we did not implement the open-classroom concept well. Too many schools pulled back from controlling time and really didn’t create the alternative control of space. That led to a sense of chaos and confusion. Despite the fact that there was a great deal of creativity, the chaos turned us away from this approach.

I was thinking the other day about the fact that the children who went through this era are now in their 30s, many of them driving an incredibly creative, entrepreneurial economy. They are the force behind the silicon century. They are the ones creating millionaires in cyberspace. In short, they may be the most "out of the box" generation we have ever produced.

Perhaps that experiment wasn't as failed as it looked at the time. It does make me wonder what today's kids who are being raised on an increasingly regimented diet of tests and standards will do when they come into power. But I digress.

In essence, we have had two models of schooling. One involving time, which has been the dominant one. The other, shorter lived, involved space. As you consider home schooling, it falls into neither camp. Learning can be delivered at any time. One of the appeals to home schoolers is the flexibility it offers. The clock does not rule. If a child is ready to do two years of math in six months, there’s nothing stopping him or her. They don’t have to worry about what the teacher in the next grade will think. There is no next grade.

Also space is flexible. You can do math in the kitchen and reading in the bathtub. In fact, if the family wants to take a year to sail around the world the learning goes with them. What then is the controlling variable?

Outcomes Over Process
I think, ironically enough, the answer lies in the earlier paradox of the cognitive and the affective. What is controlled in home-schooling are the content and the feelings. The best home-schoolers seem intent on seeing that their kids get a good education with depth attached to it.

Clearly, there are some home-schoolers with a narrow agenda that only serves to shield the child from outside influences. But many just want the kids learning in an environment of protection. That’s why home-schoolers should call themselves "home learners." The outcome is more important than the process. Results are the key.

Meanwhile, the children are being taught in a one-to-one environment with someone who gives them unconditional love. That is about the most powerful affect possible. The question for us as we approach a new millennium is how do we focus on results that are meaningful to children and parents? How do we personalize education so that it feels as intimate as a parent’s kiss? How do we show our children and their parents that our concern for them is personal and not out of a need for their business?

For public education to survive, we are going to have to learn to live in two places at once--in the heads of our children and also in their hearts.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org